A Grim Fight for 'Proper Burial'

A grieving mother still argues for victims' remains to be moved.

By SHARE

Diane Horning looks tearfully through a collage of photographs to the gaping hole that is ground zero, 20 stories below. Out the window she finds the usual scene: commuters hurrying to the subway, clusters of tourists peering into the infamous pit. Exclusively for the families of 9/11 victims, this flower-filled room is where Horning comes to mourn her son Matthew, a 26-year-old information technologist who worked on the 95th floor of the World Trade Center. It is here, too, that Horning takes fresh inspiration to press on with a grim legal dispute.

A total of 2,750 people lost their lives at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, but only 292 intact bodies were recovered. Much of the debris was carted off to a Staten Island landfill, where it was sifted. The process recovered 2,335 remains, but Horning contends there are far more. The organization she heads, World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial, is demanding that the city continue the search and move the whole pile of material to another place. "There is no amount of money you could give any mother to leave her child in the garbage for all eternity," says Horning.

The group, which filed the suit in 2005, originally asked for the removal only of cremated ash—so-called fines containing human DNA that are small enough to pass through a quarter-inch screen. But workers who did the sifting have since testified that the initial work was rushed, and they believe other body parts remain.

How much is enough? City attorney Peter Wies argues that the city went to extraordinary lengths to screen the material. At the height of the operation, a crew of about 1,500—including police detectives and FBI agents—painstakingly separated garbage from potential body fragments. "Having lost so many of their colleagues... [the workers] had a very personal stake in the effectiveness of the search," said New York City police inspector James Luongo.

Further, attorneys argue that New York was not obligated to sift any of the material in the first place. "The possibility that the remains of some victims may not have been found," city attorneys said in court filings,"... does not empower this court to order the city of New York to commit tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars to resift and relocate the material."

Yet Horning is unrelenting. A former high school English teacher from Scotch Plains, N.J., she carries a purse adorned with her son's picture and scolds ground zero vendors for selling photos of the burning trade center. No one has named a specific price for the work that Horning is asking the city to do, but when asked how the city could justify any further expense, she asks another question. "How does Mayor Bloomberg get permission to spend how many millions of taxpayer dollars to fight us?

Bereavement expert Charles A. Guarnaccia, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, said that because of the horrific circumstances, the families of 9/11 victims would have particular difficulty recovering and a need for the closure of burial. As to whether New York should comply with the families' request, Guarnaccia said, "It depends on how much you want to pay attention to people's psychological needs. It's a judgment call. I know I would find [the decision] personally difficult."